West Wycombe House and its 5000 acre estate is the home of the Dashwood family and has been since 1698. The first Sir Francis Dashwood built a house on the site, although barely any of this original house is visible, as it was incorporated into the extensive remodelling of the house undertaken by his son the second Sir Francis Dashwood.
The house is still substantially as this Sir Francis left it, drawing inspiration from his Grand Tour through Europe in his youth, he created an exquisite Palladian villa that with its porticoes and colonnades would be equally comfortable set in either Italy or Greece.
He built West Wycombe to entertain and throughout his life his antics provoked a great deal of speculation adding a great deal of colour to the Dashwood name. A founding member of the Society of Dilettanti, a club of wealthy and cultured gentlemen whose aim was to promote the knowledge and understanding of classical art and taste in England, Sir Francis had a reputation for enjoying himself in fact Horace Warpole was known to say that ‘the nominal qualification [for being in the society] is having been in Italy and the real one being drunk; the two chiefs are Lord Middlesex and Sir Francis Dashwood, who were seldom sober the whole time they were in Italy!’
Perhaps the most notorious of Sir Francis’ behaviours was that whilst at the Hellfire Club, where although it is very likely that the contemporary promiscuous rumours of the happenings within this club were widely exaggerated, free love and heavy drinking did most definitely take place there.
However, the legacy of Sir Francis that we have seen so far is rather too negative for a man who during his life took part in some extraordinary public works such as the excavation of the Hellfire Caves in order to provide materials for straightening the road from London to Oxford. Furthermore, he had a monument called the Dunstan Pillar or ‘lighthouse’ built in 1751 on his Lincolnshire estates to guide travellers across the wild Lincoln Heath. West Wycombe House and its contents represent an even brighter picture of this man and proves his warmth and feeling creating a wonderful atmosphere encapsulating his sense of fun. This sense of fun still lives on today, the late Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th Baronet resurrected many of the festivities that the second Sir Francis had revelled in with many firework parties and concerts where he was also very partial to dressing up.
In fact the present state of this magnificent house and park is largely due to this Sir Francis who undertook a great deal of research from the moment he took over the house in 1963. Luckily for the eight or nine generations before him his predecessors had done very little to the house – there had been no Victorian wings installed and it still stands largely as the second Sir Francis left it. Sir Francis the 11th baronet managed to track down and buy back various original pieces of furniture and embarked on a huge plan of restoration that is still continuing today.
The recent Dashwoods have re-established the strong link between this house and the family that created it. Today, it is a family home that accurately reflects the history of its ancestors. As well as a home and visitor attraction, West Wycombe Park is still a wonderful venue in which to entertain on a lavish scale. It is an idyllic setting for weddings, wedding receptions, parties, film locations and corporate events. In the words of Benjamin Franklin: ‘the Gardens are a paradise.’